When it comes to homeowners associations, civic associations and county and municipal bureaucracies, it can be very difficult to know what is the right thing. Sometimes the thing these organizations end up wanting seem to be a bit counterintuitive. And, lately, I’ve found myself guessing wrong more and more often as more and more people seem to take interest in what we do with our properties.
A house I renovated in Northern Virginia provides a perfect example. When I first saw the house, my biggest concern was that it was not very family-friendly. The back yard was very sloped, overgrown and unusable for child play. But my biggest concern was a large stone retaining wall that ran along the side and curved back to the rear corner of the house.
The wall started near the street and ran back along the property line. At its beginning, it was a very small wall but as the land sloped away the wall got higher and higher until it was probably close to seven feet tall at its highest point. I knew most parents would be concerned about the fall hazards. I know as a father I would be. I also know that modern building codes would require a safety railing on top of the wall.
Of course, I did not want to spend the money building a safety railing but I thought a responsible developer would have to address the safety issue created by this wall. In the end, I decided I would build a fence on top of this wall that would prevent children or adults from walking off the edge. A chain-link fence would have been the cheapest option but that would not have looked good. A privacy fence would provide the most security but it would be very expensive and I noticed no one in the neighborhood had one. So I decided on a nice four-foot-high classic picket fence. I thought this would surely make the home inspectors, neighbors and future owners happy.
I knew there was no homeowners association for this neighborhood so I figured I could build whatever fence I chose. I knew the county building department would have no problem with any type of fence I selected and they would, in fact, prefer a fence of some type. I thought the design I chose would please the neighbors.
So it was decided. In my scope of work for this house I added in the fence. My contractor budgeted and scheduled the work. We had been working on the project for a couple months and everything was going great. I had talked to several of the neighbors and they were pleased to see someone improving the home. That is often times not the case. Sometimes neighbors are not so welcoming to my presence. So I was very happy with the path this project was taking.
However, once my contractor started building the fence things changed. One of the neighbors approached him and told him that he could not build a fence in this neighborhood. My contractor says the neighbor got very insistent and agitated with him.
On this same day, I received an e-mail from another neighbor telling me that there is a civic association for the neighborhood that I should have known about, which I didn’t. In fact, I never had to deal with a civic association before. Neither the seller nor the title company informed me. The civic association, the neighbor informed me, has rules against fences in the neighborhood.
The neighbor gave me the contact information for the civic association. But before I could contact the group, someone contacted me. I spoke to the president who said fences were not allowed to go past the front of the houses. You could have a fence in the back yard but not the front yard. I informed him that I was not aware of that rule and I asked him to reconsider because of safety issues.
I explained to him the danger that the wall creates for children and others and that modern codes (if the wall were built today) would require some sort of safety railing atop that wall. He told me that neither of those facts mattered and I would have to remove the fence.
He proceeded to tell me that kids are too coddled today and over protected. Now I really don’t think there are many people out there who are more old school than I am. But being old school, I really don’t like people telling me how to protect my children. I could just imagine someone’s child taking a nose dive off of that wall while playing catch or tag or something similar.
I was highly aggravated with the conversation but there just wasn’t much I could do. I have no time and limited resources to fight these types of battles. So I informed the president that I would take the fence down but I would give notice to my buyer that the civic association made me remove the fence despite my safety concerns and that if they ever had an accident on the wall they should go to the civic association for any damages they incur.
The president said that was fine with him and we ended the call.
I later spoke to another neighbor on the street who identified himself as a lawyer. He urged me to fight the civic association. He said the association had way overstepped its authority. He told me that the civic association had created a nightmare for another lady who bought a home in the subdivision and was trying to remodel and do an addition.
I politely thanked the gentleman for his advice. He made a lot of sense and I have no doubt that he was correct but I still had to grit my teeth and move forward with my business.
It is extremely hard to try to balance all the needs, desires and rules from all the competing stakeholders in a community. Doing the right thing is not as easy as you might think. Often times it can be a very humbling experience.
My experience here is becoming more common. Many of us are faced with the similar choice — picking our battles and deciding which actions are needed to improve our neighborhoods and which are too intrusive to our neighbors and their land-use rights. As our communities become more crowded, more people will find themselves on one side or the other.
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